Review: BBC NOW – Bach’s St John Passion @ St David’s Hall

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BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales – Bach’s St John Passion
St David’s Hall
Wednesday 12th April 2017

Bach looms over most of classical music today. From his own era to the present, his effect on music and how to create music has been a milestone in composition. It’s easy to see why Wagner billed him as “the greatest composer”.

Easter is that time of year where you won’t need to look far to hear one of Bach’s Passion. It is perhaps his Matthew Passion which is revered the most, his Passion detailing the gospel of John is also a worth adversary. It’s hard to fathom what audiences would have thought of this pieces some 290 years ago in Germany. Yet few pieces have left their imprint as Bach’s Passions.

In an all star line up, John Butt both conducted the choir/instrumentalists and also played the harpsichord, a vital role during all the recitative moments during the piece. His conducting brought everyone together for real moment of inspired music making. For me, no other part of the work is more chilling and awe inspiring than the opening with the choir screaming “Lord, our redeemer”, after the stirring mix of instruments conjuring up the definition of harmony, that only could be from J.S. Bach. The stellar chorus would be our crowds in Jerusalem and even our angelic pathway to an enlisted state. They also end the night with two real belter numbers.

What is vital here is the role of Evangelist, who delivers the story of the Crucifixion. Here sung by Gwilym Bowen, he brings an integrity to this huge role and offers at times the break neck pace with a detail and clarity. Hearing Jesus sung by a bass singer in Bach comes always as a surprise and here it tackled by David Soar. It’s a role which comes in and out of the piece and is in many ways is quite sporadic. Soar is a determined presence as the lord and his short remarks are favored with his bold bass, which always has a moving quality to it.

In small roles were the sublime Elizabeth Watts, whose second solo is an absolute sweet song that had me in bits, during the chaos of the hysteria caused by Jesus being sent to die. Counter-tenor William Towers also having short time sent displaying his falsetto vocal range, though it did have moments of pleasure and I’d like to hear him in more Handel. Nick Pritchard and Ashley Riches in tenor and baritone roles had glimpses through their song, but little time is spent with them, but both demonstrate some outstanding vocal talent.

Spanning over two hours (with a deserved intermission all round), the John Passion is a moving event that, like Handel’s Messiah should be experienced live at least once. If you plan to read the translation, it’s advised that there is a lot of words. Interesting to know if there have been any English translations of this? Perhaps some surtitles are required, since programmes can be quite noisy and could be heard on the live radio broadcast.

More Bach at Easter time in Cardiff is essential.

A true Easter treat.

Rating: 4 stars

Weeping Tudor Productions returns with their next project: Jamais vu [Brexit means Brexit]. Come join us at the Wales Millennium Centre on Wednesday 31st May as we musically trigger Article 50. Expect flashes of Gertrude Stein, John Cage, Steve Reich, Luigi Nono, poetry, performance art and the joy that is Theresa May. Don’t be left behind. Tickets available soon.


Related:

Review: BBC NOW -Stravinsky’s Petrushka @ St David’s Hall

Review: BBC NOW – St David’s Day Concert @ SDH

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